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First-Ever Aspen Words Literary Prize Unveils Its List Of Nominees

Svitlana Unuchko
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Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Aspen Institute has unveiled the nominees for its first-ever fiction prize, a potpourri of 20 works plucked from across the world. Novels, short story collections, English-language or in translation — whatever their differences, each of the nominees "illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture," in the estimation of Aspen Words Literary Prize judges.

The institute, which is perhaps best-known for its annual Ideas Festival, has partnered with NPR to announce Thursday's list, as well as the finalists in March and the eventual winner — who will be named at a ceremony in New York City on April 10. A jury including award-winning authors Phil Klay and Akhil Sharma will decide which work best deserves the inaugural prize and the $35,000 that comes with it.

You can find the first round of selections below or by clicking here. The nominees are paired with links to NPR's coverage where available.

Some of the names might come as no surprise. After all, Jesmyn Ward is fresh off winning her second National Book Award for fiction, for Sing, Unburied, Sing. And while Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Refugees may be his debut short story collection, it follows on the heels of last year's Pulitzer Prize winner, his novel The Sympathizer.

Yet others on the list have backstories even the most dedicated readers might not know. Take, for instance, The Accusation — the only known published book by a North Korean author who writes under the pseudonym Bandi. Translated by Deborah Smith, the collection gives a glimpse inside life under a communist regime as opaque as it is ubiquitous in the West's media landscape.

But enough from this reporter. Without further ado ...


Salt Houses Hala Alyan


What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky Lesley Nneka Arimah


The Accusation Bandi


Harmless Like You Rowan Hisayo Buchanan


What We Lose Zinzi Clemmons


The Graybar Hotel Curtis Dawkins


The Locals Jonathan Dee


Difficult Women Roxane Gay


Exit West Mohsin Hamid


The End We Start From Megan Hunter


The Devil And Webster Jean Hanff Korelitz


The Leavers Lisa Ko


Black Moses Alain Mabanckou


The Refugees Viet Thanh Nguyen


The Tower Of The Antilles Achy Obejas


Music Of The Ghosts Vaddey Ratner


Lucky Boy Shanthi Sekaran


Mad Country Samrat Upadhyay


Chemistry Weike Wang


Sing, Unburied, Sing Jesmyn Ward

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.